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Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education - How to Get a FIPSE Grant

by Eulalia Benejam Cobb,
former FIPSE Program Officer

The San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle once called FIPSE "a bite-sized bureaucracy everybody seems to love." The characterization is apt--FIPSE is small. The staff of the Comprehensive Program is about the size of a small academic department. And the atmosphere at FIPSE does remind one of a department. Most of us are former faculty and administrators who have not forgotten what it's like to teach the 8:00 a.m. section of Freshman Comp, or to hold your breath as the Curriculum Committee votes on your plan to improve undergraduate education--or at least reform Freshman Comp.

The second half of the description is also accurate: people do seem to love FIPSE. Despite the low funding ratio, colleges and universities keep coming back to us. A survey of rejected FIPSE applicants found that 3/4 of them felt that the application process had helped them to think through their plans step by step, and had stimulated them to find ways to improve teaching beyond what they had originally imagined.

I think that the love that people conceive for FIPSE, like many loves, has an element of surprise. People call or visit us expecting at best a perfunctory information session with a staff member. Instead they get a lively individual who sounds and thinks like a colleague, asks questions, points out pitfalls, suggests directions, and ends the conversation with "be sure to call again if you want to talk some more." Is it any wonder that the faculty member with a bright idea and the administrator with a plan do call again and again?

There is a certain intensity about FIPSE's relationship with its applicants and grantees--the pre-submission conversations and consultations continue throughout the application process, after the awards are made, and beyond. Anyone who has attended one of FIPSE's annual project directors' meetings can testify to the bonds that unite the staff with grantees, and grantees with each other. FIPSE staff jealously guard the high priority of their relationships with applicants and grantees. It is important to remember, however, that despite our willingness to consult and assist both during the application process and the grant period, FIPSE very much wants to see you think up your solution to your problem and bring it to fruition in your own way. FIPSE prides itself in responding to the field rather than controlling it.

This close involvement with applicants and grantees is necessary if FIPSE is to have the kind of effect it has had on the national higher education scene with the relatively low level of funding it has received. Although originally Pat Moynihan and Elliott Richardson had envisioned a $200,000,000 foundation, FIPSE has prospered for two decades with a budget of less than a tenth of that.

Fully 70 percent of FIPSE projects continue to operate after funding ends, compared to 5 percent to 15 percent in other federal seed grant programs. Furthermore, word of FIPSE projects travels fast, and our grantees' successes inspire others to try out their own versions--research shows that through project dissemination FIPSE gets a return on its grant money of between 150 percent and 200 percent.

How do you know whether your idea has FIPSE potential? The areas of emphasis--curriculum and faculty development, international education, assessment, graduate and teacher training, and the new technologies, among others--are listed in the guidelines, but your idea need not necessarily fit into one of these--remember, we are field responsive.

It does have to be a significant and innovative idea with the potential of developing into a national model, however, and it has to be feasible--and those, as we shall see, are two sides of the same coin. So feel free to create and brainstorm and invent: this is the best part of applying to FIPSE. We are brave despite our smallness, we like innovation, and we like to take risks... calculated risks.

Remember that 70 percent post-grant continuation rate? That is possible because the most competitive proposals balance creativity and originality with a carefully reasoned study of the feasibility of the project. After the brainstorming, successful FIPSE applicants spend months figuring out just how things are going to work--in the classrooms, in the workshops, in the dormitories. They research what others have done, and find out where the dangers lie. Frequently, they try out their ideas ahead of time, with a small group of students or a team of committed colleagues, to check their inspirations against human reality. And then they spend long hours writing a proposal that tells us why their idea is better than what others have already done, and precisely what activities will bring about the proposed results--what the students will discuss in their small groups, which books the faculty will read to prepare the new curriculum, and how the computer is going to make students think in ways that pencil and paper never could.

I often tell people in the throes of writing a proposal that, just like a director about to go on location, they have to create a film of their project in their heads, visualizing how everyone involved will spend every day of the next three years, and then present it to us in precise, compelling, and confidence-inspiring terms that will make us want to take that calculated risk. It's also important that you convey the extent to which your institution is committed to your idea, not only philosophically but also by cost-sharing during the grant and demonstrating-the means and intent to continue the project after FIPSE funding expires.

When you write your proposal, it is essential to the welfare of your application that you think of us, the FIPSE staff, and of your colleagues in the field who will read your proposal among hundreds of others. As a writer, you should assume that your audience has a sophisticated grasp of higher education issues. Unless your problem is extremely unusual and recondite, it is sufficient to state it clearly and succinctly, taking into account its local as well as its national implications, and then concentrate on the description of the proposed solution.

FIPSE staff are real connoisseurs of proposal prose style, and narratives that are simple, clear and direct predispose us in favor of the ideas they present. Nothing fatigues the mind and dampens enthusiasm more than endless pages of rhetorical bloat and jargon. After he finished each chapter of Madame Bovary, Flaubert used to read it aloud to his maid, and if there were any parts that she could not follow he would chop them out on the spot. I like to think that, if Flaubert were to write a proposal to FIPSE--perhaps on developing software to help students find le mot juste--he would get funded.

Finally, as you think through and write your proposal, keep the learner firmly in mind. At the end of all the modules, systems and assessments, FIPSE likes to glimpse a student, learning more and better, and acquiring the intellectual equipment for a humane and productive life as a result of your project. Although students need not be the immediate subjects of your work, they should be its ultimate beneficiaries. Institutional consortia, faculty exchanges, and computer simulations alike should have as their object the mind of the student--that ever-shifting target on which all of higher education must focus.

As you consider the learner, plan very clearly how you are going to figure out, when your project is over, whether you have indeed done him or her the favor you intended. Evaluation is a crucial part of FIPSE work, both because it helps you keep your mind focused on the goals you want to achieve, and because it helps us make the most of our investment in you--projects that can show they did what they wanted to do automatically make converts and catalyze change.

FIPSE's application process, despite its rigors, is remarkably humane. Traditionally, around mid October, you submit your preliminary proposal, a five page statement with a summary budget. We get approximately 2,000 preliminary proposals a year. Each one is read by at least two outside readers, and as many staff. As a result of these readings and discussions, about 250 applicants are invited to submit a final 15-20 page proposal by late February. Each final proposal gets at least two outside readings, as well as further readings and discussion on the part of staff. More consultations with the top contenders follow, and finally, about 80 grants are announced in late June. Most projects begin the following fall. Starting in FY 2006, FIPSE has used a one-stage application process, involving only full proposals. And the deadline for receipt of proposals has varied.

When you consider submitting a FIPSE proposal, it is important to go into it with your eyes open. The process is laborious, and the funding ratio quite low. It takes months, sometimes years, of reflection and consultation to bring a project to the degree of ripeness that FIPSE expects of its most competitive proposals. That is why it is important to make sure that your project is something you really want to do. If the proposal, besides having potential as a national model, is intrinsically worthwhile for your institution, it will exhibit the clarity and coherence that we associate with fundability.

If, despite your best efforts, you are not funded--and hundreds of worthwhile projects go unfunded every year--you will nevertheless have made important progress towards the elaboration of a valuable idea. In the process of writing the proposal, reflecting on the response of the readers, and consulting with FIPSE staff you will have honed and focussed your thoughts about what is best for your institution. You will have garnered the support of your administration, and built up consensus among the faculty. You may be able to implement part of the project on your own; you may be able to get funding from another agency; and remember, for FIPSE, there is always next year--about one fourth of our awards go to applicants who were turned down but refused to get discouraged.


Last Modified: 07/17/2009